Category: Economics

Very real progress on the market concentration debate

As you might expect, it is coming from Chang Tsai-Hsieh and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, here is their abstract:

The rise in national industry concentration in the US between 1977 and 2013 is driven by a new industrial revolution in three broad non-traded sectors: services, retail, and wholesale. Sectors where national concentration is rising have increased their share of employment, and the expansion is entirely driven by the number of local markets served by firms. Firm employment per market has either increased slightly at the MSA level, or decreased substantially at the county or establishment levels. In industries with increasing concentration, the expansion into more markets is more pronounced for the top 10% firms, but is present for the bottom 90% as well. These trends have not been accompanied by economy-wide concentration. Top U.S. firms are increasingly specialized in sectors with rising industry concentration, but their aggregate employment share has remained roughly stable. We argue that these facts are consistent with the availability of a new set of fixed-cost technologies that enable adopters to produce at lower marginal costs in all markets. We present a simple model of firm size and market entry to describe the menu of new technologies and trace its implications.

This is likely to prove one of the most important papers of the year, here is the pdf link.  The authors open with the example of The Cheesecake Factory, and also health care:

The standardization of production over a large number of establishments that has taken place in sit-down restaurant meals due to companies such as the Cheesecake Factory has taken place in many non-traded sectors. Take hospitals as another example. Four decades ago, about 85% of hospitals were single establishment non-profits. Today, more than 60% of hospitals are owned by forprofit chains or are part of a large network of hospitals owned by an academic institution (such as the University of Chicago Hospitals).


…rising concentration in these sectors is entirely driven by an increase the number of local markets served by the top firms.

Here is a key point:

…we find that total employment rises substantially in industries with rising concentration. This is true even when we look at total employment of the smaller firms in these industries. This evidence is consistent with our view that increasing concentration is driven by new ICT-enabled technologies that ultimately raise aggregate industry TFP. It is not consistent with the view that concentration is due to declining competition or entry barriers, as suggested by Gutierrez and Philippon (2017) and Furman and Orszag (2018), as these forces will result in a decline in industry employment.

This is interesting too, and it departs from say what Amazon is doing:

…we show that the top firms in the economy as a whole have become increasingly specialized in narrow set of sectors, and these are precisely the non-traded sectors that have undergone an industrial revolution. At the same time, top firms have exited many sectors. The net effect is that there is essentially no change in concentration by the top firms in the economy as a whole. The “super-star” firms of today’s economy are larger in their chosen sectors and have unleashed productivity growth in these sectors, but they are not any larger as a share of the aggregate economy.

The paper is titled “The Industrial Revolution in Services.

From the comments, on the Coase theorem

#1 on prefiguring of the so-called Coase theorem, consider also p. 396-7 of W.H. Hutt, “Co-ordination and the Size of the Firm,” South African Journal of Economics 2(4), December 1934:

“Now, under one ownership, their relations would, given competitive institutions, be exactly the same, provided that both methods were equally efficient from the social standpoint. There is no reason why the spreading of the lines of responsibility back to several sources should lead to less effective planning than subordinacy to an authority emanating from one source, given the equal availability of relevant knowledge to the managers who devise the plans…The most important significant difference between the two cases is that, in practice, in the one case there may not be the availability of relevant knowledge that there is in the other.”

That is from Daniel B. Klein.  And:

For a still earlier ‘discovery’ with transaction costs and all see my former colleague Yehoshua Liebermann’s “The Coase Theorem in Jewish Law,” Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jun., 1981), pp. 293-303

That is from Moshe Syrquin, link for both here.

Do workers discriminate against female bosses?

Yes, it seems:

I hire 2,700 workers for a transcription job, randomly assigning the gender of their (fictitious) manager and provision of performance feedback. While praise from a manager has no effect, criticism negatively impacts workers’ job satisfaction and perception of the task’s importance. When female managers, rather than male, deliver this feedback, the negative effects double in magnitude. Having a critical female manager does not affect effort provision but it does lower workers’ interest in working for the firm in the future. These findings hold for both female and male workers. I show that results are consistent with gendered expectations of feedback among workers. By contrast, I find no evidence for the role of either attention discrimination or implicit gender bias.

That is from a new paper by Martin Abel.

Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State

Walking around one of the tonier districts of Mumbai I came across a sign, “Avoid Using Plastic Carry Bags.” The sign would not have been out of place in Portland or Berkeley but less than a block away cows and people were sleeping on the street. The incongruity motivated my new paper, Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State (with Shruti Rajagopalan). We argue that one reason that India passes laws which are incongruous with its state of development is that Indian elites often take their cues about what is normal, good and desirable from Western elites. There’s nothing wrong with imitation, of course. We hope that good policies will be imitated but imitation in India is often premature. Premature because India does not have the state capacity to enforce the edicts of a developed country.

India has essentially all the inspections, regulations, and laws a developed country such as the United States has, but at approximately $235 of federal spending per capita the Indian government simply cannot accomplish all the tasks it has assumed. Consider: U.S. federal government spending per capita was five times higher in 1902 than Indian federal government spending per capita in 2006 (Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock 2017, 58). Yet the Indian government circa 2006 was attempting to do much more than the U.S. government did in 1902.

Premature imitation doesn’t simply mean that proportionately less is done it results in tensions that lead to corruption and a flailing state, a state that cannot implement its own rules because it is undercut by the incentives of its own agents. Premature imitation amplifies a development trap.

What then is to be done? We argue that the ideal policy regime for a government with limited state capacity is presumptive laissez-faire.

The Indian state does not have enough capacity to implement all the rules and regulations that elites, trying to imitate the policies of developed economies, desire. The result is premature load bearing and a further breakdown in state capacity….At the broadest level, this suggests that states with limited capacity should rely more on markets even when markets are imperfect—presumptive laissez-faire. The market test isn’t perfect, but it is a test. Markets are the most salient alternative to state action, so when the cost of state action increases, markets should be used more often.Imagine, for example, that U.S. government spending had to be cut by a factor of ten.Would it make sense to cut all programs by 90 percent? Unlikely. Some programs and policies are of great value, but others should be undertaken only when state capacity and GDP per capita are higher. As Edward Glaeser quips,“A country that cannot provide clean water for its citizens should not be in the business of regulating film dialogue.” A U.S. government funded at one-tenth the current level would optimally do many fewer things. So why doesn’t the Indian government do many fewer things?

Presumptive laissez-faire is not an argument that laissez-faire is optimal but an argument that state capacity is a limited resource that must be allocated wisely. The idea runs against the “folk wisdom” of development economics. The folk wisdom says that developing countries today can leap over the laissez-faire period  that most developed countries went through and instead move directly to the middle way.

In the alternative view put forward here, relative laissez-faire is a step to development, perhaps even a necessary step, even if the ultimate desired end point of development is a regulated, mixed economy. Presumptive laissez-faire is the optimal form of government for states with limited capacity and also the optimal learning environment for states to grow capacity. Under laissez-faire, wealth, education, trade, and trust can grow, which in turn will allow for greater regulation.

Read the whole thing.

How strong is the evidence that the EITC boosts labor supply?

New work from Henrik Kleven:

This paper reconsiders the impact of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) on labor supply at the extensive margin. I investigate every EITC reform at the state and federal level since the inception of the policy in 1975. Based on event studies comparing single women with and without children, or comparing single mothers with different numbers of children, I show that the only EITC reform associated with clear employment increases is the expansion enacted in 1993. The employment increases in the mid-late nineties are very large, but they are influenced by the confounding effects of welfare reform and a booming macroeconomy. Based on different approaches that exploit variation in these confounders across household type, space and time, I show that the employment effects align closely with exposure to welfare reform and the business cycle. Single mothers who were unaffected by welfare reform (but eligible for the EITC) did not respond. Overall and contrary to consensus, the case for sizable extensive margin effects of the EITC is fragile. I highlight the presence of informational frictions, widely documented in the literature, as a natural explanation for the absence of extensive margin responses.

Via A. Dube.  The effectiveness of EITC used to be a consensus view, so if this result holds up, it would require some substantial revisions in how we think about both welfare and job incentives.

We had Nash and Schelling — who did the Soviets have?

The bi-polar confrontation between the Soviet Union and the USA involved many leading game theorists from both sides of the Iron Curtain: Oskar Morgenstern, John von Neumann, Michael Intriligator, John Nash, Thomas Schelling and Steven Brams from the United States and Nikolay Vorob’ev, Leon A. Petrosyan, Elena B. Yanovskaya and Olga N. Bondareva from the Soviet Union. The formalization of game theory (GT) took place prior to the Cold War but the geopolitical confrontation hastened and shaped its evolution. In our article we outline four similarities and differences between Western GT and Soviet GT: 1) the Iron Curtain resulted in a lagged evolution of GT in the Soviet Union; 2) Soviet GT focused more on operations research and issues of centralized planning; 3) the contemporary Western view on Soviet GT was biased and Soviet contributions, including works on dynamic stability, non-emptiness of the core and many refinements, suggest that Soviet GT was able to catch up to the Western level relatively fast; 4) international conferences, including Vilnius, 1971, fostered interaction between Soviet game theorists and their Western colleagues. In general, we consider the Cold War to be a positive environment for GT in the West and in the Soviet Union.

That is from a new paper by Harald Hagemann, Vadim Kufenko, and Danila Raskov, via Ilya Novak and Beatrice Cherrier.  And via Kevin Vallier, here is a new paper on how Schelling’s game-theoretic notion of stability may have come from his very early work on macroeconomics.

Why do rates of entrepreneurship vary?

Why do societies vary in their rates of entrepreneurship and organizational founding? Drawing on the largest available longitudinal sample comprising 192 countries over 2001-2018, I examine the evidence in relation to several explanations, including variation in the density of established organizations, national investment in research and development (R&D), technology transfer to new companies, the quality of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, venture capital (VC) availability, and governmental support and policies for entrepreneurship. Contrary to prevailing theories, there is limited empirical support for these explanations. Rather, the evidence shows that the strongest predictors of cross-national variation in entrepreneurial activity were normative, with social norms being the most strongly associated with entrepreneurialism and rates of organizational founding. This study further examines the relationship between norms and societal culture and finds that more gender-egalitarian societies and societies that value and reward performance and endorse status privileges had on average higher rates of organizational founding, net of differences in national income and economic growth. The paper discusses the implications of these findings in relation to research on the social determinants of entrepreneurship and organizational founding.

That is from a new paper by Valentina Assenova.  Let me just repeat one sentence in there, as it is one of the most important sentences in all of economics:

Rather, the evidence shows that the strongest predictors of cross-national variation in entrepreneurial activity were normative, with social norms being the most strongly associated with entrepreneurialism and rates of organizational founding.

Recommended.  Here is Assenova’s other new paper, showing entrepreneurship is correlated with higher innovation.

Via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

How much does advertising matter anyway?

Our results reveal substantially smaller advertising elasticities compared to the results documented in the extant literature, as well as a sizable percentage of statistically insignificant or negative estimates. If we only select products with statistically significant and positive estimates, the mean and median of the advertising effect distribution increase by a factor of about five.

That is from a new paper by Shapiro, Hitch, and Tuchman, via Paul Novosad.

Oversight of cost overruns does not always help

In the United States, 42% of public infrastructure projects report delays or cost overruns. To mitigate this problem, regulators scrutinize project operations. We study the effect of oversight on delays and overruns with 262,857 projects spanning 71 federal agencies and 54,739 contractors. We identify our results using a federal bylaw: if the project’s budget is above a cutoff, procurement officers actively oversee the contractor’s operations; otherwise, most operational checks are waived. We find that oversight increases delays by 6.1%–13.8% and overruns by 1.4%–1.6%. We also show that oversight is most obstructive when the contractor has no experience in public projects, is paid with a fixed-fee contract with performance-based incentives, or performs a labor-intensive task. Oversight is least obstructive—or even beneficial—when the contractor is experienced, paid with a time-and-materials contract, or conducts a machine-intensive task.

That is from a new paper by Calvo, Cui, and Serpa, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

The Intuitive Monty Hall Problem

Many puzzles are difficult to solve from one perspective but easy from another. A challenge on stackexchange was to find an equivalent version of the Monty Hall problem where the correct solution of switching is obvious. Joshua B. Miller has an excellent answer. To recall, in the original there is a great prize hidden behind one of three doors. You choose a door. Monty Hall then reveals a lousy prize behind one of the other two doors (it’s always a lousy prize). Do you switch doors? Most people see no reason to switch. Even Paul Erdos was a no switcher! Moreover, most of those who do switch get to that conclusion with an unintuitive Bayesian calculation.

Here’s the intuitive version.

There are three boxers. Two of the boxers are evenly matched (no draws!); the other boxer will beat either them, always.

You blindly guess that Boxer A is the best and let the other two fight.

Boxer B beats Boxer C.

Do you want to stick with Boxer A in a match-up with Boxer B, or do you want to switch?

See also Miller’s new piece in the JEP which looks at the Monty Hall problem and the Hot hand puzzle.

Pollution, Climate Change and India’s Choice Between Policy and Pretense

Image result for pollution indiaDean Spears, one of the authors of Where India Goes has a new book on air pollution in India, Air. When I reviewed Where India Goes in 2017 I said it was the best social science book I had read in years. Spears is able to accurately explain academic work–much of it his own and with co-authors–in accessible language and to combine that with on-the-ground reporting to produce a book that is both informative and full of human interest. He brings the same skills to Air.

As Spears shows, pollution is killing Indians, especially babies, and those it doesn’t kill it harms as seen in statistics on stunting and respiratory disease. Spears isn’t naive, however, he knows that manufacturing is also bringing tremendous benefits. The issue, however, is that a lot of pollution in India comes from relatively low value activities like burning crops. Moreover, solar power in India is cost competitive with coal today, even before taking into account health benefits. Thus, the harms of pollution are tragic because they are unnecessary.

If the costs of pollution exceed the benefits why isn’t something being done? One of the things I like about Air is that it is clear that pollution in India is both a market failure and a government failure. The government has been slow to respond to pollution because much of the public remains unaware of pollution’s true cost and much of the true cost is born by children and future people who have no vote. In the meantime, the government enhances rational ignorance by refusing to fund even the most basic equipment to measure where and when pollution ebbs and flows. Instead the government engages in virtue-politics by banning plastic bags and creating odd-even restrictions on driving in Delhi. These activities are pointless, even counter-productive, but they are well publicized and the appearance of doing something matters more than reality.

Here’s one brilliant bit:

Just next to the Raebareli coal plant is a solar power plant. The solar plant is, in principle, capable of generating 10 MW. That capacity is 1 per cent of the 1000 MW capacity of the immediately neighbouring coal plant (which had another few hundred megawatts under construction when I talked with Gaurav).

I visited the solar plant on Independence Day. The ground around the solar panels was flooded with August rain. A shoe destroying walk through the mud and water brought me to the control room in a small building. There, a cheerful young engineer from Bengaluru watched a bank of computer screens. A TV monitor reviewed a list of fifteen highlights of the Prime Minister’s holiday speech that morning. The control room was set up in a museum-like display. The apparent goal was to impress visitors with modern renewable energy and with colourful displays of General Electric–branded software. The young engineer was excited to show me the screens. He clearly wanted the message to be good.

It was not good. That cloudy day, most of the dots were red, not green. The screens reported that the solar plant was generating 60 kW. The engineer assured me that one day it had gotten up to 7500 kW. A megawatt is 1000 kilowatts. So, at 0.06 MW, the solar plant was producing less than 1 per cent of the 10 MW that the signboard at the entrance promised, which would have been 1 per cent of the coal plant.

It is not surprising that a solar plant does not generate much electricity if it is built beneath the smoke of a coal plant with 100 times the capacity. Ordinarily, one places solar plants in the path of direct sunlight. This one was placed in the path of visitors.

Addendum: Case in point. India today bans e-cigarettes because of health risks!

Lebanese/Gaza marriage markets in everything

Political parties sponsor weddings for young members to reinforce their loyalty, and gratitude. Religious and ethnic minorities — which means everyone in splintered Lebanon — consider marriage and procreation essential to their long-term survival. And armed groups encourage their fighters to marry so that their children can become the fighters of the future.

A few weeks before the Maronite nuptials, Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and political party, oversaw a similar enormous wedding for 31 couples. That was tiny compared with a mass wedding in Lebanon earlier this year that brought together 196 couples and was sponsored by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

But the nearby Gaza Strip — where an Egyptian-Israeli blockade keeps people poor and locked in — beats them all, often because of competition between foreign sponsors eager to win friends by expediting marriages.

In 2015, the United Arab Emirates sponsored a mass wedding there for 200 couples. Two months later, Turkey seriously upped the ante, bankrolling a ceremony for 2,000 couples that was attended by officials from Hamas, the militant group that rules the territory…

Fadi Gerges, an official with the league, said it was natural for minorities to encourage their youths to procreate in a country where demographics affect power.

Here is the rest of the Ben Hubbard NYT story, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

My MRU videos with Ian Bremmer, on globalization

Here’s the first video in the three-part series.

And a description of the curriculum:

Globalization, Robots, and You

Students have important decisions to make about their educations and careers – wouldn’t it be nice if they better understood the forces of globalization and automation first?

Imagine if they could deftly navigate data from the BLS occupational handbook, academic research, and more to gauge salary prospects, the risk of automation, and foreign competition when comparing their options.

Imagine no more: Tyler Cowen and MRU have partnered with Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group Foundation to build a five-day curriculum that covers globalization, automation, creative destruction, the elephant graph, and more! Then we apply those concepts to help students rethink personal choices of education and career. 100% free.

The curriculum is chock-full of interactive games, discussion prompts, research assignments, assessment questions, and includes three new videos.

And here are links to video #2 – Creative Destruction: Technology and Trade and video #3 – Are There Winners and Losers of Globalization?

Here is a link to the curriculum.

Tabarrok on Macro Musings

Here’s my podcast on Macro Musings with David Beckworth. One bit on China.

Tabarrok: The perspective which we’re getting today is that we’re in competition with China, but actually, when it comes to ideas, we’re in cooperation with China, because the more scientists and engineers that there are in China, then the better that is for us, actually. As you pointed out, if a Chinese researcher comes up with a cure for cancer, great! That’s fantastic! I mean, ideally I would come up with a cure for cancer, but the second best is my neighbor comes up with a cure for cancer, right?

Beckworth: Right.

Tabarrok: So, increasing the size of the Chinese market, with wealthier Chinese consumers, wealthier Indian consumers, that is going to increase the demand to do research and development, and that is going to have tremendous impacts not only in health, but in any field of endeavor which relies on these big, fixed costs. So, any time you have an idea-centered industry, which is a lot of industries today. All of high tech is idea centered. More R&D means more ideas. That comes from having bigger, richer markets.